Israel’s strong and justified response to a massive Hamas rocket assault and military intrusion on its territory is underway—and the fighting could develop into a larger regional conflict. Coming at a time when foreign policy debate in Washington is consumed with the question of whether the United States should focus on the Indo-Pacific or continue its support for Ukraine, the Hamas attack should perhaps also have been expected. The deepening conflict between the world’s democracies, led by the United States, and the de facto Russian-Chinese-Iranian alliance made what is now happening in the Middle East not only possible, but likely.
The attack on Israel relates to the unfolding war in Ukraine and a brewing regional war in the Indo-Pacific. An incursion on this scale could not have happened without strong external support, both in the supply of weapons and munitions and in the promise of political backing down the line. Irrespective of whether and to what extent the Hamas assault was facilitated by Iran and Russia (the Russian minister of defense visited Iran only a few weeks ago)—and possibly even sanctioned by China—it is in the interest of this trio of dictatorships to widen the theater at a time when the high-intensity, state-on-state war in Ukraine has already significantly drained Western stockpiles of weapons and munitions, as well as of resolve. The Hamas massacre raises several questions that the United States and its allies must address as soon as possible.
The first question concerns the scope of the attack. Volley after volley of rockets at times overwhelmed Israel’s air and missile defenses this weekend. This shows that mass drone and missile strikes will not be confined to the Ukraine war: mass and saturation attacks can overpower the most sophisticated defenses. This reality should figure prominently in any Western debate about force structure and posture going forward. Simply put, mass—both in terms of the fielded systems and the stocks available to replenish them—remains key, notwithstanding the advantages stemming from precision that the United States and some of its allies enjoy.
Second, the attack threatens to engulf the Middle East in a wider war that could see Iran assuming a key combatant role. As such, we should finally put to rest the hemming and hawing about the urgency of the threat now faced by the United States and other democracies across multiple theaters. The window to prepare for the prospect of a larger war is much smaller than many in the U.S. policy community seem to believe. The key variables will be how long it takes Russia to reconstitute its land forces, significantly damaged on the battlefields in Ukraine, and how long Beijing believes it needs to prepare for a move against Taiwan. This window, in my view, is more like two to three years, not five to seven, as some analysts have argued.
Third, Hamas’s attack on Israel should create a sense of urgency both in the United States and in Europe to move quickly to rebuild our defense-industrial capacity, which has been significantly reduced over the past three post-Cold War decades, as successive governments sought to cash in on the “peace dividend.” The United States spent the past two decades fighting a series of what might be called scheduled wars, in which we controlled the battlefield and the theater. Consequently, we built a culture of “just-in-time” efficiencies in defense logistics. Ukraine, and now Israel, should show us that we must rebuild our defense-industrial capacity, mass produce weapons and munitions, and stockpile them, replacing the just-in-time mindset with a “just-in-case” stance of military readiness.
The last, and most essential, point about this possible escalation of great-power competition into the Middle East is that we should stop talking about our strategic priorities in terms of values and ideals alone, for these won’t resonate with the American people. America’s national-security priorities aren’t reflected by high-sounding normative terms, such as “defending the rules-based international order.” Political leaders must once again speak to the people about the basics of geostrategy and national economic policy. Instead of maintaining our current reactive approach to national security, the United States and its allies should define our vision of success in terms of the structure of the alliances we need to prevail, where the critical theaters are, and what our force posture should look like.
Over the past 30 years, we seem to have forgotten the simple truth that national security remains the irreducible function of the state. Without it, we have no freedom to choose our political system, our values, or our path to economic prosperity. We urgently need a debate on national security that evokes not only norms and values but also the geostrategic and geoeconomic interests of the United States. We have no time to waste.
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